Nine to Five
by Dillon Armstrong
Short Fiction Winner, 2020 VSU Student Writing Contest
I don’t have to do this. This isn’t how it has to be. I stare at the red circle. It’s hard to see with the sun beaming behind it, rays of bright light spilling out around the edges of the yellow box dangling above the street. Why am I so hot? It is only eight thirty in the morning, there’s no reason I should be on the brink of sweating right now. I reach down and move the AC knob to the very end of the blue line and crank the fan as high as it goes. Cold air rushes out of the vents. That feels better. I shut my tired eyes, letting the air brush my face.
There’s a honk. I open my eyes. The red circle is dark and the green one is glowing now. In the rearview mirror I see a middle-aged woman glaring through her sunglasses and throwing her hands up in frustration. I turn my eyes back to the road in front of me and press the gas. The car lurches forward slowly, coming to a stop at the next light. Back in the mirror the woman is talking on her phone now, shaking her head and pursing her lips like a duck. She notices me watching and her face turns sour, followed by a one-fingered wave.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. There are other ways. The cars start moving again. I put on the turn signal and make my way left at the next intersection. There are no signals or stop signs on this street. The cars around me speed up and I press harder against the gas pedal to keep the pace. The buildings and trees and benches and people outside begin to blur into each other as we move faster. We aren’t going that fast, really, but fast enough that if I just jerked the wheel right now I wouldn’t have to do this. It would be enough to at least injure me if I hit the right target. Maybe that sign post up there? If I hit it hard enough it could fall onto the car.
It’s too late. I’m already passing the sign. With my luck it would’ve fallen the other way instead and hit somebody waiting for a bus. I shake the thought out of my head. No. That isn’t the way to get out of this. The clock on the radio screen says eight forty-seven. If I don’t hurry I’ll be late. But am I really worried about being late? Wasn’t the whole point of wanting to crash the car so I wouldn’t have to do this at all? The AC is full blast, why am I still sweating under my arms? I adjust the vents and raise my arms a little. It’s uncomfortable to be sitting like this, my shoulders and arms nearly level with my face while trying to steer, but I need to dry out the damp spots that I can feel in my shirt.
The sign ahead is pointing toward the interstate. Mexico, 90 miles. What if I did that? Would I get stopped? Would somebody come looking for me? I don’t even have a passport, I probably couldn’t make it across the border. Besides, didn’t they start building that wall? What a way to trap people. What if they put up a wall here? This would be even more miserable if there wasn’t a way out. Not that there is a way out, since I’m still driving there.
Great. I see the building up ahead. Just four more blocks. The traffic is slowing down now. I press the brake, and for the first time all morning I notice the man’s voice coming from the radio.
“Gooooood morning, folks! Here’s a little song to help kick off your Monday on WTSN ninety-four three!”
I stare at the building as the song drifts out of the speakers. Is this how it is going to be? Am I going to feel this same dread every morning for the next forty years? Am I going to be so miserable when I leave the house every day that all I think about is running away?
I turn up the volume on the radio.
“Working nine to five, what a way to make a living.”
Ha. You’re telling me.
“Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’.”
I maneuver the car into the parking garage and find my designated spot on the third level.
“They just use your mind and they never give you credit.”
Do I have everything? Wallet. Phone. Keys. Coat. Lunch box.
“It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
I turn off the car and get out, my arms full with the coat and lunchbox. The air is chilly as I make my way to the walkway. People pass by, nodding and saying good morning. They’re all faceless. I know them. Bills, Vernoicas, Peters, Annes . . . but they don’t have faces. I’m convinced everyone just wears the same mask every day. It has a slight smile, big enough to register as a smile but not big enough to create any laugh lines or a true sense of happiness. It’s devoid of any emotion. We don’t make eye contact. We just nod and keep walking.
This is it. I’m really about to do this. I look up at the door as I approach it. The gates of Hell. I take a deep breath. When it’s my turn I push through the door. The lobby is buzzing with people heading for their offices or getting coffee from the generic cart because it’s only slightly, like three percent, better than whatever store-brand coffee their company keeps in the break room.
The elevator is crowded as I shove in and press the button for the fifth floor. The door closes on us, packing us in like a can of sardines. I guess if the building doors are the gates of Hell, the elevator is a sardine can full of sinners. The sardines shuffle around, fiddling with purses and watches until the elevator opens to the fiery pits of the fifth floor.
I stumble out and straighten myself up. This last walk is long. It’s like walking on hot coals, a true testament to one’s willpower. There are four exit signs along the walk, each one pointing to a stairwell that will deposit us somewhere outside the building if we take it. This could be it. I could make my great escape. I glance at the door to the first set of stairs as I pass it. It’s too obvious, everyone would see me. The second set is the same. By the time I make it to the forth I’m breathing a little harder. I stare at the door, turning my body as I approach it, ready to burst onto the stairs and run. I can feel the adrenaline kicking in. It’s so easy. All I have to do is make it to the street and I’m free. I have enough money for a one-way ticket anywhere. Maybe the Bahamas or England. If I’m feeling super lucky even Italy or Greece. I’m face to face with the door, looking through the window at the empty stairs calling my name. I could be a free man.
But before I know it I’m sitting down in a rolling chair and booting up the computer on the desk. I’m stowing my lunch and coat in the cubby behind me and pressing the button beside the red blinking light on the phone. Voices buzz all around me, the Peters and Veronicas telling the Annes and Bills about their weekends. I take in one more deep breath and let it out slowly. You know what they say: another day, another dollar.